About the Author: Amanda did Tucan Travel’s Spiritual Burma Group Tour. Amanda is Sales & Marketing Executive for Tucan Travel. She has travelled independently and on group tours through North America, the Middle East and Asia. You can find her on Google+ or read her other contributions here.
Having never been anywhere in Asia before, finding out that I was going to be traveling to Burma/Myanmar gave me a mini anxiety attack. I had no idea what to expect and the CNN documentary with Anthony Bourdain that aired in April didn’t set my mind at ease. Not only did it confirm all that I had feared the trip would be, it spurred on all my friends, family and coworkers to question my ability to physically survive the entire trip.
In a panic I booked a trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand for July, a month before my trip to Burma to ease myself in to all that is South East Asia. I started with the cushy-ness of Singapore and eased myself into the culture one day at a time. It was a success. I survived.
At this point I was sure that I could conquer the world nothing will stop me – except my expired passport. Once I got that sorted I jumped right into getting the Burmese Visa. It seemed really intimidating but was really easy and only £14.
Then the day came when I was sent off! Off to the untouched land of Burma where, rumor had it, all ATM’s were running on dial up internet or just don’t exist, you need specifically numbered US $100 bills for exchange or you are out of luck, everything thing is old and probably falling apart: buses, trains, streets, cars, hotels. False.
I have to admit, when I first arrived in Yangon and walked out of the airport the specific smell that hit me was like a punch in the face. Unpleasant. But after 48 hours you get used to that. There were ATM’s everywhere as well as currency exchange kiosks. The best part was all the currency exchange rates in Yangon are regulated, so whether you exchange your money at the airport or the kiosk waiting for you at the top of Shwedagon Pagoda there is no worry about getting ripped off! (Just don’t exchange your money with the random men on the street, they will rip you off!) Although I have to say, the bigger the bill the better the exchange rate so showing up with a stack of USD $1 will do you no favors. This I learned from experience.
Next was a 10 hour bus from Mandalay; just the thought frightened me. I quite enjoyed the shabby-chic overnight train from Ao Nang to Bangkok BUT the overnight bus to Mandalay was beautiful! Giant cozy, reclining seats with fluffy blankets, hardwood floor and snacks provided. I know that all the buses are not the same but my understanding is that that fleet isn’t too bad no matter which bus you get on. Regardless, it was a smooth ride on the “Road to Mandalay”.
But the thought that frightened me the most (aside from the food) was the hotels. Are they run down? Clean? How was the staff? What were the washrooms like? DID THEY HAVE WIFI?? Funny enough every hotel had WiFi, was clean and comfortable with fully functioning washrooms and in no way rundown. Some even had some amazing grounds with beautiful pools and gardens.
Besides the sights what was the best part? The locals. And that wasn’t just my thought but most if not all my group agreed. The people were fantastic! They were more than happy to help you all the time and made me feel so safe. They anticipated our every need in every possible situation and did so with the biggest smile on their face. Whether it was our amazing local guides, our fantastic driver and drivers assistant (because every driver needs an assistant), the taxi drivers, the servers in the restaurants, the hotel staff, everyone! I can not stress enough how amazing the locals made this trip for me. Having recently been traveling around Bangkok alone I got such a different vibe here. No one is trying to rip you off or take advantage of you. They are just happy to have the opportunity to provide for you a service and hopefully bring a smile to your face while doing so.
And they did such an amazing job that I will never think of Burma and not smile.
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